Live Like a Traveler; Learn to Negotiate

Recently back from seeing Thailand and Myanmar my perception on life has had no real alterations.  If you have read The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton then this would not really surprise you.  Travel has been built up as a grand scheme; a dream to open the senses and eradicate any and all ailments in "normal" life.  What people fail to grasp, however, is that travel is just an extenuation of you daily routine but in a new environment.  And many people are terrible at adapting.

Social Darwinism typically works in favor of those who are canny enough to seize opportunities and mold themselves to fit into new situations. In Myanmar I found the opposite.  Europeans (and any travelers really) are approaching Myanmar by the droves to appreciate a way of living not seen in many places on Earth anymore.  Unfortunately, they are not embracing its eccentricities. 

The Burmese people are wonderfully curious and hospitable, except of course around popular temples (a.k.a. the sought after yet "hawked" tourist traps). There locals have taken to a very aggressive and gregarious sales style and act very out of character of their common culture.  The greatest travesty is that travelers are not making the new tourism economy any easier on the local people or other travelers.

In Western culture we are used to set monetary amounts except for certain settings such as professional compensation, job contracts, and buying a house. But even then we sometimes fall short.  Traveling to these two countries I was hoping to gain a better grasp on my bargaining skills, but came out probably worse than how I started. 

Typically in a society based upon irregular monetary units (the exact same bills will literally be cut to the size of Monopoly dollars or sometimes twice as large) bargaining and negotiating are the mainstays of goods exchange. People not used to this type of living are typically terrible at it when they start. But DO start!

I have two problems with this: simply not adapting to a new system of "buy and sell" will become the downfall of what makes traveling to this country that much more enticing.  Instead of wading deep into what makes this part of the world truly great--besides the collective nuances of a time before modern transportation--some travelers are opting to simply hand over what is necessary.  Also, there is a misconception that it does not matter to argue over the 500 kyat, or the equivalent of $0.50, but travelers should instead by "helping the local economy" with our money. First, not all travelers even have $0.50 to spare as they are on extremely tight budgets. Second, taking this view is truly demeaning to the Burmese people.  To think that by opening up the country and allowing foreigners to come in and spread their views and cultures we are somehow helping Myanmar is a very colonialist way of to perceive oneself.  

I went through Thailand able to bargain for a fair amount of items (they are heavily modern now though and run mainly on shopping malls and brick and mortar businesses). On one instance, going up to Doi Suteph in Chiang Mai, my friend and I were told that the taxi up the mountain would be 80 baht.  We paid 40 baht for the trip up, visited the pagoda, and came back down to the line of red trucks. "200 baht" was the first price given to me. Seriously? No.  "100 baht...60 baht..." and that is were it plateued.  They were just trying to scam knowing that they were the only rides back down.  I was adamant about the 40 (and mind you the difference in 60 and 40 baht is less than a $1).  Then, a couple from Houston came up sweating and caved in a second.  "60? Sure." NO!

These are the people whom the articles written about salary negotiation, why women are paid less, and so forth are even considered. Infantile minds where the best option is the most comfortable option. Anything that does not cause ripples in the situation are grasped on to instead of making huge waves of intelligence and stamina.

People will always try to scam tourists and in Asia we are at a disadvantage since "fahlongs" can be pegged within a second. However, if we continuously give in to the pressures of the situation than what good is going to new places anyway? Being pushed and pulled by people in Thailand, where tourism has been huge for decades, is a sorrowful foreshadowing of what can happen in Myanmar. However, there is time to correct our behavior.

In Myanmar, a place known as a bargainer's heaven, there seemed no local willing to except the trade.  Richer, older (eh hem...French) couples would drop up to a $1 on bottled water when it should have been costing them 20 cents.  Again, these are not big numbers but in the grand scheme of budgeting for all travelers and foreigner-to-local relationships it does not help at all.  The only thing I was willing to bargain down was a book and that was because the guy seemed to be annoyed at everyone else touching his inventory and then moving on.

Just as in real life you should never settle. You would never buy or rent a home without seeing it so why go into hostels and pay whatever price is mentioned without seeing the room first.  Assess, develop a negotiation strategy, and react. Everything in Myanmar was supposedly negotiable (and although I did go in the shoulder tourist time) I found almost no locals willing to bargain.  Sales contracts, salaries, job descriptions, and even simply going out to lunch with your significant other develops into a long standing discussion back in your "normal life", so why stop when you travel?

Revaluate your stance on traveling. It can teach you new things about yourself. Remember, you travel to experience, not force your experiences on others.